The Wardens of Death: Examining Death and Dying in Modern Heathenry Part I

While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Death in antiquity was a much different affair than it is today. It haunted the people of the ancient world, saturating their culture as a hateful thief of frith. It laid in wait across battlefields and beneath the beds of unsuspecting children. In a world fraught with danger and rife with disease, the spectre of death lingered at the threshold of every home. Feared and reviled, the arch-heathens saw death as both the natural consequence of a life lived, and defied its inevitability with a stubborn zeal for living that could not be refuted. [1]

This is a jarring contrast to the odd culture of modern heathens that manages to glorify death while avoiding the topic entirely. To better understand how such a divide persists, we must first examine the prevailing attitudes toward death in the west, and the heavy reliance on misunderstood concepts by modern heathens.

The lifespans of adults in the ancient world were unsurprisingly short and frequently at the mercy of injury and disease. Surveys of several bronze age cemeteries show that the average adult did not live past the age of forty-five, and examination of their remains reveals the devastating story of life before antibiotics and vaccines.[2] Conversely, a modern adult living in the western world can expect to live to nearly eighty[3] and we have all but eradicated diseases like smallpox and polio; illnesses that ended hundreds of thousands of lives. By and large, most survive previously fatal ailments.

While this is without question clearly a beneficial advancement, affording us much better lives, measured both in quality and duration, which allow us to function more productively and spend longer years cultivating relationships with our tribe and families, it has deeply altered our perception of and relationship with death. The act of dying has become a medical condition rather than a natural occurrence. It is something one contracts, not something one does. It is now relegated to the old and the infirm, and tragic accidents are viewed with horror that leaves us reeling. No longer do we expect that death may take us at any time, as the ancient peoples once did. It has been removed from us, an abstract concept.

This attitude bleeds heavily into modern heathenry. What few conversations that exist focus almost entirely on what becomes of our dead elders, or our dead warriors. We do not discuss children or spouses taken from us. Across all aspects of heathen culture, modern literature, even discussion and study groups, the idea of death is skirted around with a sense of false bravado. We thump our chests and quote the oft recited line of cattle and kinsmen dying, and then hastily move on while glancing over our shoulders, as though the cloak of death is summoned upon examination of what it truly means to die as a modern heathen.

The ancient Germanic people, the arch-heathens after whom we are modeling our religion, had complex rituals and processes regarding interactions with their dead and dying. It was their responsibility to ensure that their loved dead successfully completed their journey to the mound. Great care was taken to prevent the soul from leaving the body prematurely, closing the eyes, mouth, and noses of the dead in order to keep the spirit inside. In a practice that still survives today in parts of Scandinavia, a fresh door was cut and the corpse carried out to prevent the cadaver from making a less than welcomed return visit.[4]

Altars to the dead were lovingly constructed, and the physical evidence of Iron Age mortuary practices show frequently disinterred and disarticulated skeletal remains; likely for use in ancestral rituals. Archaeological recoveries from this same time period also support the practice of occasional domestic curation of familial remains congruent with ancestor worship and its various practices.[5] In short, the arch-heathens were the wardens of the journeys of their dead.

The extremes of life extending technology and advancements have played a role in shifting this duty from us. The Stanford School of Medicine reports that a mere 20% of Americans die at home, with 60% dying in hospitals and the remaining 20% dying in skilled nursing facilities.[6] No longer do we carry out our dead, or safeguard their souls. We have surrendered the guardianship of our dying and our dead to medical and mortuary experts. It is important to note that these specialized professionals are much needed, and I address them only to illuminate the distance modern heathen culture has placed between ourselves and death.

It should be a point of concern that for a religion with such a solid foundational belief of what happens after we die, we have few to none when it comes to that transitory period of death and dying. Modern heathens have not yet developed disparate practices from the secular culture. We are not the guardians of our ancestors.

Of equal concern is the lack of grief acknowledgement within modern heathenry. This acknowledgement of grief is vital, and missing from modern heathen conversations on death. When the topic is rarely discussed, grief and sorrow are glossed over, a symptom of the overtly heroic bravado that heathenry has adopted; but it was times of mourning that gave us some of our most poignant saga stanzas. Consider Egil on the death of his son:

'Me hath the main
of much bereaved;
dire is the tale,
the deaths of kin:
since he the shelter
and shield of my house
hied him from life
to heaven's glad realm.
Full surely I know,
in my son was waxing
the stuff and the strength
of a stout-limbed wight:
had he reached but ripeness
to raise his shield,
and Odin laid hand
on his liegeman true.[7]

The arch-heathens felt grief acutely, as they felt any injury that wounded frith. Death was the ultimate destruction, a void unfillable. So why is that we turn our faces when we are struck with this offense? Our dead never leave us, so long as we call their names, but the grief-stricken living must not be brushed aside.

It is a function of religion to offer support and comfort to adherents in times of trials and great stress. We must ensure that we do not fail in this, and we must once again take up the mantle of safeguarding our dead on their journeys.

Frith makes it our duty to comfort and counsel those among our people - be they heathen or simply blood kin and loved friends - who are suffering from the devastation of loss. Too frequently, we anguish in silence because the death culture of modern heathenry celebrates death in warfare but offers no guidance on how to navigate life after the death of a child.

Few heathens have thew, tribal or personal, surrounding the religious attending and handling of our dead and dying.

What are our grief rituals?
How should the dead be attended, and by whom?
How do we move forward when frith is punctured by death?

One would reasonably expect that as religious folk, we would have some kind of process, some way of answering these questions with any degree of confidence; and yet when polled everyone from Asatruar to Theodsmen confessed that they weren't sure what should be done, and expressed disappointment that such conversations were muffled in the general heathen community.

These are but a few of the questions we must ask and answer if we seek to practice our religion in its wholeness and to its fullest extent. We must, once again, become the wardens of the journeys of our dead.

  1. Vilhelm Grønbech, 'Culture of the Teutons: Volume I', pg 191 ↩︎

  2. A. F. Harding, 'European Societies in the Bronze Age', pg 377-379 ↩︎

  3. National Institute on Aging, 'Global Health and Aging'; ↩︎

  4. Marianne Hem Erickson, 'Doors to the Dead: The Power of Doorways and Thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia'; ↩︎

  5. Dennis Harding, 'Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain', pg 280-281 ↩︎

  6. Stanford School of Medicine, 'Where do Americans Die?'; ↩︎

  7. 'Egils saga Skallagrímssonar', W.C. Green Translation, 1893. ↩︎